canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Randy Boyagoda

Randy Boyagodaís writing appears regularly in Harpers, The Walrus and The Globe and Mail. He is a professor of literature at Ryerson University in Toronto. His debut novel, Governor of the Northern Province (Penguin), was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

This interview was recorded at the Coffee Mill in Yorkville, Toronto 29 December 2006. The interview was conducted by Mary Williamson.

*

TDR: So you're from the 'Shwa?

RB: That's right, originally from Oshawa.

TDR: Did you find Oshawa a supportive place for your nascent writing career?

RB: [laughs] No!

TDR: How did you manage to become an author?

RB: I moved to Toronto, went to Uof T and did an English Degree, then a PHD in Boston. My literary origins in Oshawa are not that strong. My biographical origins there certainly are quite strong. If anything itís the standard story of living in a small town and you start reading and your imagination expands significantly when you see the world well beyond your own postage stamp of soil.

TDR: Was your family supportive? 

RB: [Laughs] They donít quite understand what I do and thatís okay. They like the fact that Iím a professor. They got to meet Adrienne Clarkson at a Book Launch.

TDR: Thatís a big deal. And quite validating.

RB: They probably would have a very different idea about what I do if I wasnít a professor teaching at a University.

TDR: Do you teach creative writing at Ryerson?

RB: No. Never would. Terrible idea. I teach 20th Century American Literature. Modern American Novel, Faulkner, Ralph EllisonÖ

TDR: How do you feel about how your book has been received by the public?

RB: Itís been very flattering (the reviews). The amount of attention the novel has received outside of the Giller Nomination has been great. Had I any complaints it would be that the fact that as a satirical novel has been kind of passed over. I donít think satire as a literary form garners as much attention as it used to.

TDR: Why do you think that is?

RB: I think that these days we are conditioned to accept psychological realism and historical fiction as the basic modes of "serious" novels.

TDR: Do you experience that in Toronto, or elsewhere as well?

RB: I think thatís a western thing. That having been said, I think in Canada there is a special love of the historical novel and also of the immigrant story.

TDR: Could you give me a break down of the "immigrant" story? 

RB: It involves someone from a different country who comes here, doesnít fit in, and doesnít fit in back home. That person then finds a recipe that a grandmother gave that person and makes that food and cuts the finger while making that recipe, sucks the blood--

TDR: Has a flashback?

RB: --Yes. Has a flashback while sucking the blood; itís bitter sweet, The End. You know, very self-righteous suffering.

TDR: Is it lonely being a satirical writer in Canada? Who is your community? Who do you relate to?

RB: I spend a lot of time on Mordecai Richlerís grave.Pining away. Serious satire has not really taken a hold here [in Canada] after Mordecai Richler died. I think part of that has something to do with the over-weaning seriousness of contemporary Canadian cultural conversation. So, I read the dead and thatís my community. Now, that sounds awfully romantic and I certainly have made some very good friendships through the Walrus, a Toronto based magazine I write for.

TDR: When I first started reading this novel I wondered to myself; does he hate Canada?

RB: [Laughs] No. But that very question-- that I have received many times--does suggest something about how limited we are in understanding passions for Canada.

TDR: I do get a strong sense from the novel that you love this country as well. 

RB: One can love a country in a critical way. In fact youíre doing it a better service, than to be waving the flag and eating at the food court and thinking this is a lovely multi-cultural, tolerant place.

TDR: What does the term "Multi-Culturalism" mean to you?

RB: We too often celebrate multiculturalism as a term. It has a proper historical meaning that came out of its enshrinement in the Charter, Trudeauís proclamation of official Multiculturalism in the 1970ís. For me it has just become one of these safe terms that Canadians use to avoid problems. We can add to that tolerance and diversity: the Holy Trinity.

TDR: Except that tolerance is such a dirty word.

RB: What are we supposed to be? Weíre supposed to be tolerant, weíre supposed to embrace diversity, but if we never question those terms, we end up with an African Warlord as a neighbour.

TDR: But heís quite loveable?

RB: Thank you! Iím glad you said that.

TDR: Now, JenniferÖ

RB: Did you feel a little bit of Jennifer growing up in Caledonia?

TDR: Yes, there were certain moments in the novel that were difficult because of how closely I could identify with her experience of judgment and this small town idea or mentality of wanting to limit people in their success or in their desire to succeed. Which, I think can happen in a broader sense throughout Canada, not just in a small town. I started to feel like you were beginning to like her toward the end of the novel.

RB: I do (sic). I am sympathetic towards her.

TDR: I read in an interview that you wanted to mirror her in a way to Bokarie. Is Jennifer really as gruesome and terrifying as an African Warlord?

RB: No. But Bokarie is not as gruesome and terrifying as an African Warlord would be either. I think Jennifer is a character for whom I developed some affection. She tries so hard.

TDR: She doesn't seem to allow Bokarie to develop his own public voice, though perhaps she was never really permitted to develop her own.

RB: She's fated by genetics and geography to be the big boned daughter of a small town farming family. The very fact that she rejects that trajectory and strives for something different--however clumsily she does-- is something that one can admire even though she embodies the dangers of our country's tendency toward pacifying politeness. I guess it's her turn now to be our leader and she's got that African and that's a good thing, so let's send her to Ottawa!

TDR: Who do you identify with in the novel?

RB: I don't know if I identify with anyone that entirely. Certainly with both Jennifer and Bokarie to a degree.

TDR: Where does the real-life inspiration for the character Jennifer come from? 

RB: I guess Jennifer is an amalgamation of your standard University of Toronto Varsity Newspaper editor in terms of sensibility and a small town Canada girl.

TDR: Do your students influence you? 

RB: I think that the opportunity to study great books with smart students whether itís at Boston, Notre Dame or here at Ryerson certainly helps. You can test out ideas and see how people are reacting to certain moments in the book and then adjust accordingly.

TDR: Are you working on any academic projects at the moment?

RB: I have a book coming out in June about Faulkner and Ellison and the representation of American identity in their fiction as revealed by the encounters between natives and immigrants.

TDR: Do you see yourself writing another novel? Will you delve further into satire?

RB: No. It will be more along the lines of [Ralph Ellisonís] Invisible Man: a Young-Man-About-the-World book. I think that with Governor I was able to express and test out a series of ideas that (while living in the United States) I had developed about Canada. Now Iím leaving Canada aside. Iíve said what I needed to say about Canada.

TDR: Iíd like to get back to discussing how your novel has been received; more specifically by literary critics, and how you feel about Canadian reviewing culture in general. 

RB: In a couple of the reviewing reactions and interviews critics have read real life historical figures into certain characters that had no bearing on the book and I found that frustrating. In terms of the interpretations themselves, I am a book reviewer and I know how that works. The reviewer's vanity often has a great deal to do with what one sees in the book. The only complaint I have there, again, is that the bookís satire wasnít really taken on as satire. In terms of satire, I would quote Roger Angel who was the long time fiction editor at the New Yorker who, in his latest book, observed, "we no longer trust humour to say serious things".

TDR: Do you think it is a good idea for Canadian writers, or writers in general to get outside of their particular "socio-economic culture" and experience Canada, or their country from a different perspective?

RB: I certainly couldnít have written this novel if I wasnít living in the United States. And I guess the challenge with the next book will be to maintain a kind of independence.

TDR: Do you think it is helpful to get a "bad" review"?

RB: Sure. If itís an intelligent bad review. Absolutely.

TDR: Do you think that happens in Canada? Do literary critics give intelligent, "negative" reviews?

RB: I would say so. Iíve given a couple of pretty negative reviews.

TDR: Is part of your intention to "help" the writer?

RB: No. My goal is to evaluate the book. To see what the book sets out to do and then measure its success vis a vis: its initial ambition; and if the book adhered to that ambition.

TDR: My general and perhaps incendiary sense of the publishing industry here in Canada is that there seems to be a serious lack of editing.

RB: At what level?

TDR: I am not sure. It feels like thereís a rush to publish novels, as though thereís a push to get the product "out there". Thereís maybe not enough time for development of "craft" so to speak.

RB: Well Iíve only written one novel. And I wrote it from far away. But weíll see with the next book!

Mary Williamson is a freelance writer and a regular strength writer slash photographer slash filmmaker currently at large in Montreal.

 

 

 

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